The Curious Case of the Monkey-Puzzle Tree - Believer Magazine

The Curious Case of the Monkey-Puzzle Tree

This ancient conifer is a tree you can’t unsee, or climb, or hug—and it’s become a symbol of escaping downfall.

A couple of Decembers ago, in Paris, I paused to watch animatronic Christmas trees in the windows of Le Bon Marché. They were built as can-can dancers and ballerinas, and not so amusing as the young monkey-puzzle tree I had just noticed in an adjacent park. I’d only ever seen one in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

The forties movie has a young widow renting a cottage by the sea. It’s a cheap address because it’s haunted. But what really rankles her is in the front yard, blocking the view—an Araucaria araucana, planted by the ship captain who’d lived there. She wants roses, and the problem is that his spirit is intact and his love for that tree survived the death process, too. He seethes when she axes it: “What have you done with me monkey-puzzle tree!”

The Telegraph has branded the monkey-puzzle a “love-it-or-loathe-it tree.” Tony Kirkham, Head of the Arboretum, Gardens, and Horticultural Services at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew confirmed as much by phone: “Mhm. We call it the Marmite Tree.” Whether you go for the monkey-puzzle depends on how you feel about a Tim Burton cover of Dr. Seuss’s Truffula. Its spiraling leaves are as sharp as shivs, and some people effuse that the species is a “fantastic product.” “It’s one of those few trees that you can’t climb,” Kirkham noted. (You certainly cannot hug it.) He thinks the tree is grand, and when I mentioned monkey-puzzles to my friend Mitch Owens, AD’s decorative arts editor, Owens told me, “I adore them.” Others report back on the boughs as “savage curlicues,” “a nightmare to work in and around.” On a plant that can reach 160 feet and live 2,000 years, those branches hold forth like topiarian antenna, sending/receiving who knows what to/from who knows what galaxy. “I hate them,” the environmentalist Dick Warner wrote in his popular column, calling the monkey-puzzle “disturbingly extra-terrestrial” and “invariably ugly,” and encouraging his readers to make theirs into salad bowls. More neutrally, the Pacific Horticulture Society says that one makes a “weird statement in the landscape.”

Days after Christmas 2018, visiting Raleigh, folks were already chucking their pines, spruces, and firs to the curb when I caught a 3D short at the natural science museum about dinosaurs. Ankylosaurus clubbed a carnivore with its tail, and that was cool, but I leaned into the picture when the death antler foliage appeared onscreen. “Regarde, monkey-puzzles!” I whispered to my husband, who was puzzled by my fascination with the evergreen. But this is a tree you can’t unsee.

The monkey-puzzle’s roots go to the Jurassic. Some 200 million years ago, it grew worldwide. Brontosaurs noshed it. And if the tree wasn’t exactly the same back then, it nearly was, and that explains the museum flick and also why monkey-puzzles stand behind T. rex in Walking with Dinosaurs—the BBC scouted a national forest with volcanoes and millennial monkey-puzzles in Chile for the set. The Andean species ranges into Argentina, but it is Chile’s national tree, called pehuén, after which the indigenous community took its name. In an ode to the araucarias, the Chilean poet-politician Pablo Neruda described the People of the Trees seeking refuge in the razored woodland when conquistadores rolled in. Traditionally, they pray to the monkey-puzzle. Offer it meat. Eat it. Neruda had explored the south’s deep, wild forests as a boy, where a beech could grow to “the diameter of a horse,” and on the road to exile in 1949 he hid for a few days at a logging site in those forests and listened sick-heartedly as one “giant work” after another was cut. “Anyone who hasn’t been in the Chilean forest doesn’t know this planet,” Neruda wrote in the first pages of Memoirs. He recognized the Pehuenches as stewards. One of the monkey-puzzle’s jumbo cones was a “fist,” which they opened like a “wooden rose.” The piñones are as big as thumbs and taste like chestnuts when toasted. They have been a staple for the locals as well as a cash crop. “It’s a tree that God left on earth, for us, the Pehuenche,” Alfredo Meliñir, a leader from Quinquén, a valley of araucarias not three hours from Neruda’s hometown, stated in 1996. Timber interests had pushed out Meliñir’s community about a decade earlier, when a ban on logging monkey-puzzles was lifted, and he added, “In the end, we would rather die than give up defending this tree.”

Much of Europe’s popular nonnative garden flora owes its introduction to the Scottish naval surgeon and plant hunter Archibald Menzies. “It is claimed” (doubtfully) “that more plants are named after Menzies than any other collector,” his biographer James McCarthy writes. He “discovered a number of tree species which have drastically altered the landscape of the British uplands.” In 1795, a rotten mast diverted Menzies’s ship to Chile. He had been tasked by his boss at Kew Gardens with bringing back any “curious or valuable” flora. There was no time to go to the monkey-puzzles in the south, but Menzies got ahold of viable seed somehow—though not likely, as rumored, by pocketing piñones from the palace’s dessert table. He’d probably ordered a cone that fell to pieces before it could be catalogued intact. The fact is, Menzies sprouted monkey-puzzles on the ship to London, and that’s how the tree landed in the UK.

One sapling went to the boss, who planted it at his place, where it soon died. Another did not survive outside at Kew. The remaining four were kept at Kew in a glasshouse. One of those, eventually put into experimental ground and dubbed “the lion of the garden,” lived almost a century but became “a wreck” (“an eyesore to all but sentimentalists”) toward the end. Glasshouse plants were occasionally loaned as showpieces, and a second Menzies tree never recovered from a gala for which the servants had “very imprudently” ornamented its branches with lanterns. Prince Albert got one of the Menzies: installed at Windsor Castle, after a few years, it either croaked or was rotated out.

The last of the six trees went twenty minutes outside the city, across the Thames from Windsor, to the estate called Dropmore. “A grand estates had to have grand trees,” David Gedye, the author of a recent book on monkey-puzzles, told me by phone. The location Lord Grenville had picked for Dropmore was open heathland, Gedye explained, so Lord and Lady Grenville started planting out trees the day they moved in—they’d plant thousands, and create a trend among the landowners for areas dedicated to conifers. More than a hundred kinds of coniferous trees were collected in their 50-acre Americas-themed pinetum, and in it, under the green thumb of their head gardener Philip Frost, Gedye’s great-great-grandfather, the original Menzies flourished.

Menzies was backed by Kew. Most plant hunters were backed by horticultural societies or a pool of investors, said Gedye. It was the Horticultural Society of London who’d sent James Macrae to get more monkey-puzzle seed in the late 1820s, for example. But when James Veitch, of the powerhouse Veitch Nurseries, sent their first plant hunter to South America in the forties, he did so “on his own pocket.” The nurseryman hedged his investment by tacking Chile onto William Lobb’s itinerary—because even if he returned with nothing else of commercial value, monkey seed was sure to move. Lobb, however, did return with other commercially valuable plants—lots—and Veitch was so preoccupied by the likes of new orchids, he hardly cared about Araucaria. “In twelve weeks,” Gedye said, “Veitch cleared his stock and never talked about a monkey-puzzle again.”

That history has credited Lobb and not Macrae with reintroducing the monkey-puzzle abroad is some of the misinfo Gedye corrects in his book. At any rate, reintroduced it was, and the species became known as the monkey-puzzle at a time when English gardens were edited to exotic. “Exotic, and expensive,” Gedye added. The monkey-puzzle was a trophy. The Victorians were mad for it. It became the iconic tree of Victorian England: “the ultimate fashion accessory,” according to the English garden historian Charles Quest-Ritson; “a star tree,” recounts another scholar, and “the ostentatious symbol of the second half of the nineteenth century.” Five pounds bought you a five-footer in the 1840s, when a live-in maid earned six pounds a year. Araucaria arauca “can scarcely be overlooked by any improver,” Lord Rolle’s gardener advised in 1850, as lines of the tree formed on estates throughout the UK. In Derbyshire, a castle had avenues and a hillock numbering north of a thousand monkey-puzzles.

As supply became more available, the price of the tree went down. It became accessible, and the aristocratic fad was aped in the burbs. Of course, members of the gentry “chastised cottagers for having Araucaria in their tiny gardens, tight up against their windows,” as Gedye put it. In Britain, an issue of class could topple a tree.

By the 20th century, the monkey-puzzle was anathematized: “[T]here is no tree with which people are more familiar,” and “no tree … has suffered so much from injudicious planting among inappropriate surroundings,” a baronet-novelist-politician-horticulturalist faulted in 1915, “…and I know of no more dismal object in the world of plants than an araucaria stuck down in front of a suburban villa, stifled with smokey deposit, retaining a despairing grip on life, whereof the only visible sign is the green tips of its poor blackened branches.” (Because monkey-puzzle leaves last ten to fifteen years, they were turning like silver teapots.) Authorities pushed the ginkgo as an alternative. It was a primeval tree too, of a kind, they said, that could actually fit in.

In the last decade or two, monkey fans and fellers have reemerged, as communities debate axing specimens that have made themselves a nuisance. “But the species is probably more popular now than it has been in a long time,” Kirkham, at Kew, had remarked when we spoke. “There is fashion in horticulture—plants come in and go out, and the monkey-puzzle is sort of back,” Martin Gardner, coordinator of the International Conifer Conservation Programme (ICCP), based at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, told me in a recent conversation. His center’s 90-year-old female monkey-puzzle is the cynosure of visitors. “It’s our panda,” Gardner joked.

Gedye self-published his book to benefit the ICCP. “The advantage of the monkey-puzzle for us is that it’s such an iconic species,” Gardner allowed. “It’s quite convenient as a vehicle for the conservation message.” They are growing some 1,500 monkey-puzzles at about thirty safe sites across the UK. The tree is one of many threatened conifer species the ICCP grows ex-situ to broaden the genetic base. “We plant with scientific meaning,” he said. “We know exactly where each tree comes from and how that tree is genetically adapted to a habitat.” Here is rewilding’s catch: “If you will restore or replace a lost forest, you have to be careful to use the right material.” Not just a monkey-puzzle, but a monkey-puzzle geared to specific conditions of soil and weather. “I hope we won’t need to use them,” Gardner added, “but the way things are going, we probably will.”

Already in 1897, there was some concern that the monkey-puzzle tree might get wiped out. Forests were logged, and cleared for wood and pulp plantations as well as ranches, which is still the picture. Parks that are parks only on paper have been a problem. Forests are broken where the land has been denuded. And laws that protect a species but not its natural territory do not lead to success stories, Gardner stressed.

The ICCP has done much of the work accessing the planet’s conifers for the Red List of Threatened Species, which ranks from least concern to extinct. Araucaria araucana’s status is smack in the middle: endangered, color orange. Trickier than deforestation is climate change, as the Andes’s cool, moist slopes heat up and dry out. “We’re starting to get reports of trees dying as a result,” Gardner said. “The big problem today is fire,” à la California and Australia. In 2007, after three decades of legal battle that played internationally as a cause célèbre, Quinquén’s Pehuenche won the land rights to their 22,000-acre araucaria forest, but by the end of Chilean summer, 2015, fire blazed there and in most protected areas with monkey-puzzles. A million of the trees burned in one national reserve.

Monkey-puzzles seem to grow in the borderland between the past and the future. My husband gave me a monkey-puzzle tree this Christmas. “They packed it in styrofoam popcorn,” he complained. “The leaves speared the kernels—I had to use pliers to get them off.” Groot is potted on our fifth-floor balcony in Paris. The tree looks like a pigeon deterrent. It is the height of our infant daughter, who arrived just after the tree, and sometimes during our day I chatter at her while we look at it.

Groot’s green! I tell her. Groot’s not child-proof! “Does my baby prefer roses to monkey-puzzles?” I ask, and quote the captain and the widow, and inform that The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was set in a Cornish town but filmed in Palos Verdes and near Big Sur, and that if you drive up the coast, up, up it, there’s a great wood named after John Muir, who was the “Father of the National Parks,” and the trees there are as tall as 170 babies stacked in their organic onesies, and, oh, by the way, the captain’s monkey-puzzle was found in a Fox Studios lot and transplanted to set. Très pratique, bébé!

“In France,” I tell her, “the monkey-puzzle is called sespoir des Singes—monkeys’ despair.” Isn’t that an apt name for a tree that has become a symbol of escaping downfall? It’s a rhetorical question. And she coos in delight because she does not know what I am talking about yet.


You can email David Gedye to purchase his book and you can support the ICCP directly here.

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